Hurling up a storm of excitement
Remember that feeling at midnight on Christmas Eve? When you were a kid and the anticipation of the goodies lying in store was almost too much to bear. That's how I feel about the hurling championship. This is going to be one of the great years.
It will be ultra-competitive with no fewer than eight teams having a shot at making the final. The quality level should be high given the amount of memorable matches we saw last year. And the new format will guarantee a sustained level of excitement, with this year's Munster championship likely to be one of the most fiercely fought provincial campaigns of all-time. What more could you want?
There will be some quibbles. A certain inequity between the two provinces is apparent. Leinster should be a cakewalk for the top three teams there, and the team which finishes fourth in Munster will feel hard done by. The matches between the Joe McDonagh Cup finalists and the provincial third-placers could be embarrassingly one-sided. By the end of July the final will be the only match remaining and it will seem unjust that the championship has been hurried along to make way for the comparative tedium of football's Super 8.
For all that, it's very hard to see how this year's championship can avoid greatness. This, for all hurling's aesthetic joys, is not an inevitability. Just three years ago a competition easily won by a Kilkenny team reaching no great heights added little to the sporting summer.
Things look different now. In 2017, Galway's first victory in 29 years and Waterford's second final appearance in 53, were the most graphic illustrations of a more democratic championship. The situation has tightened up even more since then. In the league, Galway displayed a flakiness which cast doubt over their ability to win two in-a-row for only the second time, while the league final raised further questions about Tipperary's ability to marry talent to application.
Clare and Limerick looked like teams on the verge of a breakthrough and their elongated quarter-final shootout seemed a perfect example of how little there is between the top teams. Kilkenny looked rejuvenated and a string of Wexford victories showed the Davy Fitzgerald revival is no flash in the pan.
There's a decent case to be made for every Munster team's chances of coming first in the provincial dogfight. You can also see how any of them could finish last. Tipperary undoubtedly have the best players. No other county has an attacking trio like Seamus Callanan, John McGrath and Jason Forde, whose fine performance in adversity was the only good thing Tipp could take from the league final. A midfield pairing of Brendan Maher and Dan McCormack will get the better of most opponents. In the magnificent Pádraig Maher they have the best defender in the game, and the arrival of Alan Flynn and return of Cathal Barrett improves the team hugely in the full-back line.
What's not to like about Tipp? Well, sometimes the team seem to suffer from a kind of collective absent-mindedness, evident in the league final as it was last year against Cork. It's nothing to do with Michael Ryan, this lack of rigour has been a problem for Tipperary for a long time and explains why the county hasn't won back-to-back All-Irelands since 1965. How many times have we said that Tipp 'have plenty left in the tank' only to see them run out of fuel at the most inopportune moment?
Yet the new format may be the making of Tipperary, providing them with four tough games before the business end of the championship, giving the manager time to sort out any complacency issues and find out which configuration best accommodates his enviable supply of attacking talent. They're my bet to win the All-Ireland.
There's a feeling abroad that Waterford will come a cropper in Munster. It's surprising me given that the Decies' trajectory is that of a team who might win an All-Ireland: narrow semi-final replay defeat two years ago followed by a good effort in last year's final. Galway were almost perfect in that decider yet Waterford still finished just three points behind despite the absence of their best defender, Tadhg de Búrca, and a nightmare outing for their best forward, Austin Gleeson.
Predictions of their demise stem largely from their diabolical league performances. Yet Waterford were not at full stretch and suffered accordingly because no major team has a lower cruising speed. Derek McGrath's team rely so heavily on physicality, energy and competitive spirit that their worth can only be gauged in big championship matches. They should make it out of Munster OK.
Very little separates the other Munster teams, and next Sunday's Cork-Clare clash could be pivotal. The time seems ripe for Clare's all-conquering under 21s to come into their own at senior level, yet no team was more disappointing in last year's championship. This term they look like a team which has worked assiduously to address their weaknesses.
Immensely vulnerable in the full-back line last year, Clare boasted the best defensive record in the league just gone by. A rested Tony Kelly seems set for a big year in midfield, while giant scoring machine Peter Duggan has the potential to become a household name by the end of July. If they manage to win in the Southern Sandpit, they could gather momentum like they did in 2013.
That summer five years ago may also be on Cork minds. The Rebels' final appearance then proved to be a false dawn and you wonder if last year's Munster title might have been another. The departure of Kieran Kingston was unfortunate for a team who seemed to have finally gained some stability. The weaknesses exposed by Waterford in last year's semi-final were obvious again in the league.
Still, Cork played perhaps the best hurling in last year's championship. Their attack was irresistible when in full flight and they may just need an opening-game victory and some good dry days to do their famous mushroom impersonation once again.
Limerick's comeback win over Galway and extra-time loss to Tipperary in the league showed a team heading in the right direction. Like Clare, they have an abundance of young talent, but theirs may perhaps need a couple years' more championship experience. Yet they have defenders - Sean Finn, Diarmuid Byrnes and Richie English - who any team would envy and should be still in the hunt when visiting Clare in their last game.
Leinster will be much more predictable with Galway, Kilkenny and Wexford coming through easily. There's no great reason to doubt Galway's ability to retain their title; the team is brimming with top-class players and has no glaring weaknesses. Yet a somewhat flaky league campaign engendered some doubts.
Last year, the seriousness with which Galway treated the league boded well for the championship. All the way to September their competitive intensity never flagged. More than any other team, Galway gave the impression of believing it was their year. If the hunger has been maintained, the achievement of Cyril Farrell's team in 1988 could be emulated. Galway are a very good team, this year will show whether they're a great one.
If rumours of Kilkenny's demise were exaggerated, the significance of their league triumph may have been overestimated. They only scraped past Offaly in the quarter-final and had the advantage of a home tie in the final. Can the inadequacies of last year really be glossed over so quickly?
Maybe they can. TJ Reid has the same man-of-destiny look about him that Joe Canning had last year and Cillian Buckley and Pádraig Walsh will be the bulwarks of a defence which has recaptured that old scrupulous meanness. Richie Leahy could be the championship's breakout star in midfield and the only doubt may be over Reid receiving the necessary support up front. Walter Walsh will shoulder some of the burden, but Kilkenny's ultimate fate may depend on whether Richie Hogan can overcome the back injury that's dogged him for the past year.
Like Alex Ferguson or Bill Belichick, Brian Cody has the ability to make his team greater than the sum of its parts. It would not be surprising to see the new open hurling championship conclude with a seventh Kilkenny-Tipperary final in ten years.
Doubters may discount Wexford because they've suffered heavy defeats in big games against top opposition. Davy Fitzgerald certainly has less gifted individuals than any of his rivals. Yet the league showed his team's knack for edging games if they can hang in there until the closing stages. With Lee Chin leading the way, the Slaneysiders will be very tricky quarter-final opposition for a side which has endured an arduous passage through Munster. A surprise last-four appearance is not beyond them, and then who knows?
The 2018 hurling championship is a whodunnit with a ton of suspects, myriad red herrings and an enormous amount of possible storylines before the solution is revealed. Should the stellar cast do justice to the script, there will be no better show this season. Neither Wimbledon, the Ryder Cup, Ireland's rugby tour to Australia or even the World Cup will hold a candle to what happens in Croke Park, in Semple Stadium, in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the Gaelic Grounds.
It's Christmas morning for the GAA fan. The waiting is over. The alarm has gone off. Let's take a look at the gifts. It's time to play.
Sunday Indo Sport